Is eye contact overrated? I think so. And I’ll go further. If you, personally, overrate eye contact, I think you’ll be missing a trick when it comes to communication. You might even be an eye contact junkie!
Yes, all you “people people” – I’m talking to you!
You probably already know that there are huge differences between cultures when it comes to eye contact. In some cultures (such as mainstream American culture) eye contact is seen as a universally good thing, signifying respect, attention, recognition etc. But in other cultures the opposite applies – direct eye contact signifies disrespect.
It seems to be less well known that there are huge differences within cultures when it comes to eye contact, too. Some people hate it, or at least find it uncomfortable and/or distracting, depending on the situation.
And, some people constantly demand eye contact, even when that makes the other person uncomfortable or distracts them.
Are they addicted to eye contact? Eye contact junkies?
Or, do they just not know any other ways pay attention?
Let me share some ideas. I’m curious to know how they’ll land with you.
Eye Contact: Attracting Attention Or Paying Attention?
When I’m working with a group – even a big group such as when I’m giving a conference keynote – I like to run an activity where one person encourages another to keep talking for two minutes without using words.
My main purpose is to warm up people’s listening muscles and prepare them for another activity. But a side-effect is to reveal the eye-contact thing. Someone always says that they use eye contact to indicate that they are paying attention. There tend to be nods of agreement – but not from me.
What direct eye contact actually does is to attract attention. That’s not the same thing as paying attention.
Alternatives To Eye Contact
When you really pay attention to someone, they will know you’re doing it. You don’t need to huff and puff, make exaggerated uh-huh noises, or spend a lot of time nodding.
Instead, try using a soft gaze, seeing the whole person including their gestures, staying relatively still, and holding a relaxed curiosity about this unique human being. Consider using a Clean Language question or two, including their exact words – that’ll help keep your attention focussed.
Remember, the quality of your attention can determine the quality of another person’s thinking, and perhaps even their destiny. Consider it practice in becoming a better listener.
Downgrading Eye Contact
There’s a relationship between eye contact and working with remote teams. Put simply, when you’re remote from another person, eye contact can’t work in quite the same way.
Obviously on the phone, or when using text-based systems such as email, there’s no chance to make eye contact. And even when using online video, eye contact isn’t the same as in person, because the camera and the on-screen image of the other person are not in the same place.
So if you are an eye contact junkie, you’re going to be at a disadvantage online.
Is that a good enough reason to start to break the addiction?
- This set of ideas is very much work in progress. Comments most welcome!